After some sidebar screenings last week (shorts, experimentals, and recent restorations), The New York Film Festival’s press screenings started in earnest today. I’ll burst Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble at a later time, preserving this space for whatever lovestruck superlatives I can ineloquently muster on behalf of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. I’m sure the film will be described with stock terms such as “virtuosic”, “tour de force”, “brutally realistic”, “a masterpiece”, etc., etc., and while it’ll all be applicable, I fear that our familiar and limited vocabulary won’t do this singular work of art justice.
How’s this: Cristi Puiu’s film is one of the finest achievements in the history of cinema. I’ll equivocate some other time. What I saw this morning – and what I’m still living within half a day later – was so agonizingly empathetic, and so thoroughly, vigorously representational of all that human behavior allows, that I’m liable to hold every other “realist” or “natural” or “socially insightful” film made by anyone other than the Dardennes to an impossible standard. Puiu doesn’t make his achievement look quite as easy as the Dardennes do L’Enfant, but he comes close – and he’s using an even bigger net. In what feels like real time, the ailing Mr. Lazarescu goes from somber solitude to the depths of public degradation and – in a sense – back again, all during the course of a single evening, encountering dozens of doctors and nurses and drivers and neighbors and strangers along the way. Mr. Lazarescu’s condition is always of concern, but the camera lingers just long enough to enliven everyone else with independent priorities and motivations. Overarching themes arise, such as man’s inescapable isolation, the mortality of human flesh, the subjectivity and insecurity of medical diagnosis, and the brutal but essential systems and regulations that citizens subject themselves to for the sake of society, but never at the expense of a single person on screen or the verisimilitude of a single location or shot. Now I remember why I love film so much.